Sunday, December 14, 2008

Sermon for the Third Sunday in Advent

Third Sunday in Advent (December 14, 2008)
“Confess!” (John 1:6-8, 19-28)

We talk about “confession” an awful lot in the Church. We use the word “confess” in several different ways. The basic meaning of the word in the New Testament means to “speak in a similar way.”

One way we use that word is when we confess our sins. When we confess our sins, we speak in a similar way about what the Bible says about us. The Bible says that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Rom. 3:23) Therefore, we admit that what the Bible says is true. More importantly, we speak to God about our problem. You know these familiar words from St. John’s first epistle, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9)

Another way that word is used is when we confess our faith. When we confess our faith, we speak in a similar way about what the Bible says about God. We make solemn statements of faith. Paul talks about the way in which faith leads to clearly confessing what one believes in 2 Cor. 4:13. There he writes, “Since we have the same spirit of faith according to what has been written, ‘I believed, and so I spoke,’ we also believe, and so we also speak.” The Church over the ages has done the same, by clearly confessing the truth, such as in the ancient confessions of faith—the Apostle’s Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed. Those three Creeds introduce the book which the Lutheran Reformers compiled, the Book of Concord, which contain what we call the Lutheran Confessions. We don’t call them the “Confessions” because they confess the sins of Lutherans, but rather because they “speak in a similar way” as the Bible does about who God is and what He has done for us. The Lutheran Confessions also clearly reject those things that disagree with what the Bible says.

Another way in which the word “confess” is used is when we “bear witness.” That’s the meaning in our text today. It said that John “confessed, and did not deny” his own identity and the identity of Jesus.

We sometimes fail to confess our identity as the Church and as individuals. When we fail to do that, we fail to point people to Christ. John the Baptist confessed freely who he was, and in so doing pointed people not to himself but to Jesus. We follow the pointing finger of John to Jesus, so that we can confess the truth about ourselves and then point others to Jesus, too.

First of all, confess who you are not. John was questioned about his identity from the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem. They went out to the place where he was baptizing and interrogated him.

They first asked him if he was the Christ. The Jews of that day expected a Messiah who would come to lead them in victory over the Romans and set up God’s reign on earth. John confessed freely, “I am not the Christ.”

Then they asked him if he was Elijah. The prophet Malachi had said that Elijah would come before the Messiah appeared on the scene, to prepare the way for him. They failed to realize that John came “in the spirit and power of Elijah ... to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.” That’s what the angel Gabriel said when he foretold John’s birth to John’s father Zechariah. But John was not literally Elijah come back to earth in the flesh. And so, John confessed, “I am not Elijah.”

Lastly, they asked him if he was “the Prophet.” In Deuteronomy 18, God promised to send a prophet like Moses, to whom the people should listen. John also denied being “the Prophet.”

If someone were to ask us about our identity as the Church or as Christians, what would we say? Would we be ready to confess who we are not?

As the Church, are you a “social club”? Are you a place where people simply come to gather and get to know one another? I’m sure we would all confess, “We are not a social club.”

As the Church, are you a “theatre” or a “night club”? Some churches look that way, where entertainment has taken the place of the exposition of God’s Word. I’m sure we would all confess, “We are not a theatre or a night club.”

As the Church, are you a “self-improvement” center, where you learn principles to live by, or to learn about your human potential? I would hope that we would all confess, “No” to that one, too.

As an individual Christian, would you be ready to confess who you are not? Can you freely confess to others that you are not perfect? Some people think that they must be perfect—or at least close to perfect—in order for God to accept them. Some think that they must be perfect—or at least close to perfect—in order for others to accept them. Some people who think too highly of themselves expect perfection from others—or at least expect them to get pretty close to perfection—before they will accept them. But this expectation of perfection will surely drive others away from the Church, when they see that people who call themselves Christians are far from perfect, but who put on airs of being “holier than thou.”

As an individual Christian, can you freely confess that you are not someone who has all the answers? Do you feel guilty if someone confronts you about something in the Bible and you’re not prepared to give them an answer? Instead of feeling guilty about it, realize that one person cannot be expected to know everything. Maybe you are a new Christian. Maybe you are a new Lutheran. Maybe you are someone who has neglected studying the Bible, whether in a Bible Study here at church, or individual study at home. Don’t be afraid to admit you don’t know, and tell them you’ll try to find the answer.

Confess who you are not, and then confess who you are, not to direct attention to yourself, but to direct attention to Christ. When the priests and Levites who had confronted John finally asked him, “Who are you?” he answered, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’” The idea behind his answer was this: The roads of that day were not paved and smooth like the roads we drive on. They were mere tracks and trails. When a king was about to visit a city or a region, the local department of transportation would get out and smooth out the roads, making sure there were no obstacles or hindrances along the way. In essence John was saying, “I am only a voice telling you to get ready for the king, for he is on his way!”

In answer to “Who are you?” John also confessed that he was not even worthy to untie the straps of the sandals of the one whose way he was preparing. As we mentioned last week, that was a task that only a slave would do for his master. By saying this, John implied that he was not even worthy to be the slave of the one who was coming. John was not afraid to be humble and freely confess his reason for being—to point to the Savior. And that is what he did. When Jesus came to the place where John was baptizing, John pointed him out and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”

Most teachers would become jealous or hurt if their students left their classroom to go learn from another teacher because they thought he was better, or more important. But not John. He wanted his students to leave him and learn from another teacher. He had no pride nor pretense. When he pointed Jesus out to his disciples and they left him to follow Jesus, his mission was fulfilled. Later, he said to his disciples, “This joy of mine is now complete. He must increase, but I must decrease.” (John 3:29-30) John was happy to see his disciples leave and become disciples of Jesus.

John the Baptist points us to the Savior, so that we may confess who we are as the Church and as Christians. When we do this, we point others to Christ, as Jesus told his disciples, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)

We confess that the Church is not a social club. It is not a theatre nor a night club. Neither is it a self-improvement center. Instead, we freely confess that the Church is an “ark.” The Church is the place to which God has called us and brought us to keep us safe from the coming judgment. The Church is the place where he has washed us through the flood of Baptism. The Church is the people whom Christ gathers around His Word and Sacraments and distributes His gifts of forgiveness and grace.

We do socialize, for sure. But we do so as those brought into a new relationship as brothers and sisters in Christ through the cleansing waters of Baptism.

We don’t come to be entertained but to receive real nourishment from God’s Word and Christ’s body and blood, and to respond with thanksgiving, prayers, and praises.

And we’re not a self-improvement center, learning principles to live by. We will always miserably fail to live by those principles, and that puts us back under the Law again. The Gospel is that Christ came to free us from the curse of the Law by living the perfect obedient life that you and I could never live and dying on the cross for our sins and giving us real life.

As individual Christians, we are far from perfect. We freely confess that we are “poor miserable sinners” and then receive the freeing words of absolution. We confess that we do not have all the answers, but we do have the answer to life’s ultimate questions, “Who am I? Where am I heading? Where do I turn for real peace, for relief, for a clean conscience?” St. Peter wrote, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you for the hope that you have.” (1 Pet. 3:15 NIV) We give the answer by doing as John the Baptist did—by pointing to the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. John said to his questioners, “Among you stands one you do not know.” Christ stands among us in our world today, and there are still those who do not know Him.

So keep on confessing. Keep on bearing witness to the Light. In Christ, God has snatched us out of the darkness of death and brought us into the light of life. Having rescued us, He continually gathers His people through the light of His Word. We confess the truth and the saving power of that Word with our mouths in our creeds, in our confessions, in our song, in our liturgy, in our prayers, and in our eating and drinking at the altar.

God grant us the grace to confess—to “speak in a similar way” as His Word does, and to point to the Baby in the manger, the Lamb of God, the Risen and Returning Savior.


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